ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ALEEN RATZLAFF
Carol Duerksen recently logged onto the Internet to check the Evangelical Press Association’s Web site.
She was eager to see whether the organization had posted the awards from its annual competition held among Christian magazines published nationwide.
Sure enough, Duerksen spied the results. After surveying the list, she let out a scream of delight.
Her reaction was understandable.
WITH, a magazine targeted to ages 12 to 18 and published by Faith & Life, had received this year’s top EPA Award of Excellence in the Youth category.
“We were pretty excited,” said Duerksen, editor of the bi-monthly Mennonite magazine.
The magazine, with a circulation of about 5,000, finished ahead of big-budget publications such as Campus Life, On Course, Go!, Focus on the Family’s Brio and Breakaway, all four-color and with large staffs.
“It’s neat to know that with design, good writing and ‘being on the edge’ with some of our topics, we were able to grab that award, even though our budget and ability to do color were not what some of the competition was,” said Duerksen, whose rural home is located between Goessel and Hillsboro.
WITH also took two third-place awards, one for a fiction article by James Janik and another for a critical review written by Becky Mueller, a 16-year-old from Halstead. Mueller’s piece on pop-singer Britney Spears had competed with reviews written for all audiences of all ages, not just those for teens.
Duerksen said WITH’s submitted entries were produced in two-color-a more economical process than four-color, but often considered less eye-catching and contemporary.
Beginning with this year’s first issue, the magazine switched to four-color and went from eight issues a year to six.
“With technology, we were able to do four-color for almost the same price, although we did drop a couple issues,” she said, adding that most youth magazines publish bi-monthly.
One regular writer, Laurie Oswald of Newton, praised Duerksen’s role as WITH’s editor.
“She’s a supportive person,” Oswald said. “She gives you an assignment and gives you the freedom to do it and to follow where God is leading you with it. It’s wonderful to be trusted in that way. She fosters that.
“I can tell you that Carol is a big part of why we are the kind of writing family we are. She’s done a lot to bring that atmosphere about. She’s integral to that.”
Quick to share the accolades, Duerksen credits the magazine’s quality to her writers, designer Jim Friesen, who works at Mennonite Press and editorial assistant Delia Graber.
“She’s incredibly sharp and keeps me on track,” said the WITH editor of her 78-year-old secretary. “She’s a big part of that, too.”
Duerksen said she has eight “contributing editors”-writers she uses all the time. They live as nearby as Newton and as far away as Seattle and Boston.
The writers, whose ages range from 30s through retirement, don’t shy away from teen-relevant topics, such as premarital sex, racism, relationships and sexual abuse.
“The key is they have to write from a teen-age perspective,” she said. “They have to write so that when a kid reads it, the kid can identify with that person-not like it’s the mom or grandma saying, ‘This is what you should be doing.'”
Those who add to the magazine’s excellence are not limited to the current personnel.
Duerksen attributes the depth of the writing to input by Eddy Hall, a freelance writer from Goessel.
In 1990, Hall and Duerksen joined WITH as part of a three-person team appointed until another editor could be hired. After a couple years, Cynthia Linscheid resigned and the editing team reduced to the two of them.
Hall brought his writing skills to WITH and coached many of its writers, Duerksen said.
“We began to have yearly writers’ workshops, which is pretty unheard of in the industry,” she said. “We fly in people from all over the U.S. and Canada, pay their expenses, put them up in a bed and breakfast and train them how to write for WITH magazine.”
Duerksen said she also brings together teen-agers who meet in focus groups at the workshop to give their input about the magazine’s content and appearance.
All the investment is paying off.
WITH magazine also received the top EPA award four years ago and finished in second place with the Award of Merit in 1998 and 1999.
“Obviously (the workshops) are one of the factors in the magazine’s success,” said Duerksen, who took over as sole editor in 1998.
Asked how she keeps the magazine relevant to a video generation, she said: “One of the keys is to be as cutting edge as you can. Not only in themes, language, topics and graphics, but in doing everything you can to push the edges as much as you dare to push.”
Duerksen said she tries to balance attention given to “Bible issues” and “other issues”-one time focusing on sex and dating, and the next on faith issues of service and mission.
“We don’t back off from very many topics,” she said.
The magazine’s approach is not “don’t do it-end of discussion. Rather we talk about choices and consequences,” said Duerksen, who, along with husband Maynard Knepp, stays in touch with the pulse of teens by sponsoring international students in her home and serving as a youth sponsor at Tabor Mennonite Church near Goessel.
Duerksen collects added teen input from the WITH-IT team, comprised of six youth who have volunteered to give written critiques about each bi-monthly issue.
“Their critiques are helpful,” she said.
Goessel’s Kenton Nickel, 18, is finishing two years on WITH-IT. He agreed to serve on the teen team after the editor invited him to join.
Nickel finds the variety in content accounts for much of the magazine’s appeal for him.
“They cover such a large variety (of issues),” he said. “I can hardly think of something they haven’t done.”
Although most subscriptions are distributed through Mennonite congregations, yearly subscriptions are available to anyone. In fact, Duerksen said Faith & Life is pitching WITH to a larger market that includes the American Baptist and Presbyterian denominations.
“They haven’t picked up on it yet, but there’s strong interest, ” she said. “When it comes down to it-teen issues are teen issues.”
For subscription information, call 1-800-743-2484 or write to: WITH, Box 347, Newton, KS 67114.